East Meets West at the Rashomon Gate: A Film Review of Rashomon by Christopher Wostenberg
I remember watching Rashomon for the first time during my sophomore year in college. I had gotten in the habit of getting a few movies from the college library during finals week to de-stress me. Rashomon was one of these movies. After watching it I could not believe how short the movie was because it seemed to contain so much within the film that it just had to be longer. The film was artistic while telling a great, universal story. While I did not understand Japanese culture and history, I could understand the story being conveyed. It really started me on my path to becoming a lover of world cinema. Needless to say, without it I would not be here now writing this series of reviews.
The film starts with a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner meeting outside the Rashomon gate during a storm. The woodcutter and the priest tell the commoner of the recent trial of a bandit accused of murdering a samurai. Next, the events of the crime are shown from the point of view of the bandit, the samurai’s wife and the ghost of the samurai as told at the trial. In the end, the woodcutter mentions all of the stories are lies and he tells the priest and the commoner what he witnessed, but did not tell the court.
Rashomon is a great film as it brought Japanese cinema to the Western World without compromising. Director Akira Kurosawa was not trying to break into the international film industry with Rashomon. The movie is based on the short story “In a Grove” by Akutagawa, in addition to taking its title from another Akutagawa short story. The setting for the picture is during 11th century Japan when there was much social crisis, which the West would not be very familiar with unless they studied Japanese history. The acting style is based on classic Japanese theater, with the bandit seemingly overacting and the wife of the samurai very subdued except with bursts of emotion. In addition, there is a richly choreographed quality to the movements of the actors, also reminiscent of Japanese theater. Overall, the look and feel of the film is bathed in Japanese culture.
While the movie was not intended for a wider audience outside of Japan, the unique storytelling made the movie universal. Besides a minor scene in Citizen Kane, where the audience sees the same event from two points of view, no movie made prior to Rashomon dared to show the same event from multiple perspectives. Presenting multiple perspectives leads the audience to never know what is true in the film since every character lies to make themselves look good. This narrative device echoes the Western philosophy of Thomas Hobbes known as psychological egoism.
Even the ending of the film is ambiguous as it is debatable if the ending is pessimistic or optimistic about human nature. Much like any other great work of art, Rashomon leaves the viewer thinking about their humanity. Furthermore, the movie contains minimal dialogue; this approach supports the poetry within the cinematography and choreography of the actors. The forest and sunlight obscures the picture, making it hard to see clearly what is going on. The cinematography mirrors the vagueness within the story regarding what actually happened in woods between the samurai, his wife and the bandit. The actions of the actors become more important than the words; we start to realize that words mean nothing when it is so easy to lie. The movie could be almost fully understood without listening to the dialogue (or reading the subtitles), making the film more approachable by a foreign audience. Thus, it was through the elements that heightened the storytelling that made the movie reach a broader audience.
The movie hit the international scene with a bang. It first premiered internationally at the Venice Film Festival where it won the grand prize at the festival, the Golden Lion. In the United States it won the Academy Honorary Award for best foreign language prior to introduction of the Best Foreign Language Award category. Since then it has won numerous other awards and recognitions. “The Rashomon effect” entered the vernacular, meaning first-hand witnesses with different accounts of a crime. Finally, the nonlinear structure of the film was adapted by other directors, notably Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. All the accolades demonstrate Kurosawa’s talent for making a piece of art that transcends one culture into world culture, which is the true power of film (and other art forms) in general.
Favorite Scene: Unlike my previous reviews, to pick my favorite scene from this film is fairly easy. The scene is the first time we hear the woodcutter’s story of finding the body that leads to the trial. The scene is great because of the sandwiching of it between the gloomier moments in the film. The first scenes in the movie are gloomy with the downpour of the storm and the characters coming together just to avoid getting drenched. Instead, the woodcutter’s story is filmed in a lighter tone. The scene is carefree as the camera changes points of view to give a sense of a summer stroll through the woods, which is what the character of the woodcutter is doing in the scene. The length of the scene gives the audience time to relate to the character. Eventually, the woodcutter comes to a discarded hat that leads him to the shocking discovery samurai’s corpse. Like the woodcutter, the audience is spooked by the brief and partial glimpse of the dead body. Now, we are totally invested in the story without any words of dialogue having been spoken in the scene.
It is also important to note that the scene is famous for being cited as the first time that the camera was pointed at the sun. It was considered unthinkable to aim the camera at the sun because it would destroy the shot as the light would be too intense. Kurosawa and his cinematographer, Miyagawa, beautifully are able to do this by having the trees partly obscure the scene, making for a very artistically done shot that is unforgettable. Since Rashomon, this technique is widely used in films.
I encourage you to find a copy of the film and watch it. Afterwards, we can take the time to share our opinions on it as was the intent.
Stay tuned for my next review, which will on Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. Until then, I leave you with the line spoken by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer that ended the Silent Era of Film, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”